It was late at night, and my husband and I were having an argument about the same subject we’d been arguing about for two decades—cooking and cleaning.
The argument seemed to come out of nowhere. We were having a nice evening together, the kids were asleep, we were watching a movie and chatting. And then all of a sudden, the conversation went off on a tangent, and it felt like the ground we were standing on suddenly split and a deep dark cavern opened up between us.
Here we were now, standing on either side, an insurmountable ravine between us, throwing anger and pain and disappointment at each other. Trying to convince each other of our own rightness in the situation.
For the whole of our marriage, the patterns have been that I cook and organize the kids, he cleans and takes instructions about the kids—which, on paper, might seem reasonable, but we were both holding deep amounts of resentment, bitterness, and anger about this arrangement.
It was not an arrangement that had been discussed. It was an arrangement that just evolved, and for some reason it drove us both into wild flames of anger.
For days after these arguments, we would retreat inside our emotional selves, like wounded animals tending to the emotional wounds we had suffered. After we both emerged, we wouldn’t discuss the argument; it felt like it had taken so much out of our lives that we just wanted to skip onto the next thing. If I am honest, I knew I didn’t have the tools to discuss it in a way in that wouldn’t ignite the argument again.
Why open up the wound when it felt like it had healed?
But, of course, it wouldn’t have healed, and it would just come up again a few weeks or months down the line.
Cut to five years later and the arrangements haven’t actually changed much, but these arguments have disappeared. Not only have the arguments stopped, the deep old bitterness and resentment have gone. And instead, the discussions about cleaning, organizing the children, and cooking are now mostly along the lines of how can I help you with what’s on your plate today?
How did this happen? What radical change did we instigate, or did we just swap partners to people who were kinder and more reasonable?
No, in these five years I learned about how the brain processes and perceives emotions, and that unlocked a totally new way of being in my relationship.
What felt so radical for me is that when I learned how to work with my emotions in a different way, it changed how my husband (and my kids) started dealing with their emotions.
I didn’t need to explain or discuss anything with them. But by showing up differently, I changed the emotional patterns of my family, and that was the most empowering thing I’ve experienced in my whole life.
Here are five of the realizations that made the biggest shifts for me.
1. What we learned about emotions is usually wrong.
Humans are meant to have emotions, and to have the whole range of emotions—anger and fear, sadness and despair, love and joy. These are all natural. But many of us learned that some (or even all) emotions are somehow wrong and we shouldn’t have them.
Emotions are not meant to be suppressed, avoided, ranted about, thrown at other people, or handled in any of the other ways most of us learned to deal with emotions.
Emotions are meant to be seen, felt, and heard. I like to think of emotions being like clouds. They arrive, we feel them, and then they drift out.
What causes so many problems for us is that most of us didn’t learn to feel them in this way. We didn’t grow up with the sense that emotions are manageable, and that it’s possible to hold them gently in our bodies, allowing them to drift in and then drift out.
This is because our parents and caregivers (and their parents and caregivers) usually struggled with their emotions, so we now struggle with ours.
For example, anger: What did your parents do when you were a child and felt anger? Most of us would have been banished to our rooms for saying things in anger. Or maybe our parents tried to jolly us out of feeling anger, made fun of us, or told us to just get over it. Or our anger was met with our parents’ anger, and we were punished.
What that teaches our brain is that anger is wrong. We shouldn’t feel anger. So, when anger comes up and we don’t know how to hold it, we can end up throwing it at other people by arguing or shouting, or keep it locked inside where it might feel totally uncomfortable and painful. Or we end up having endless angry looping obsessive thoughts that we just can’t stop.
Anger ends up feeling very uncontrollable for us, impossible to have in our bodies, and scary for us to witness in others, and it can become a destructive force in our lives.
But there is a different way with emotions, and this is what emotions actually want. They want to be seen, felt, and heard.
Not to throw the anger at others or keep it inside to feel like it’s destroying our being, but to learn how to feel safe with it. To know that we can feel more at ease experiencing anger, so the anger can come up into our bodies and then come out as we release it.
2. When emotions are high, logic goes out the door.
When emotions activate, it’s like a giant lens comes up and we start to see the world through the lens of that emotion. So, when we feel anger, we see the world through the lens of anger. Which makes it seem like there are so many upsetting things in the world.
Or fear—we see the world through the lens of fear and it seems like so many things are scary or terrifying.
But the thing to know here is that it’s simply the emotion that is coloring our vision. If we are able to work with the emotion, then we stop seeing so many scary-terrifying things and start to see the world as a more nuanced and relaxed experience.
So if I am seeing anger activate in my husband, or fear or sadness or any emotion, I know that he is seeing the world through this lens and there are no ‘facts’ or ‘logic’ that will change that.
I, therefore, am not going to engage in conversations about cooking and clearing when he is in his emotions. Or anything that feels important to me. I will wait to talk about things that feel important to me when he isn’t emotional.
3. We shouldn’t listen to our thoughts when we are emotional.
Similarly, when I am feeling anger, instead of allowing my mind to find 234 things to feel angry about and then accusing my husband of being the cause of all of them, I am going to recognize that I feel anger and I am going to work with that emotion instead of throwing my anger at him.
My feelings are my feelings, and his feelings are his feelings. And although my brain wants to say, “He’s the reason I am feeling angry! He’s to blame!”, the anger I feel is actually bigger and older than him. Most of our emotions are so old and arrived way before our current situation, experience, or relationship—even though it doesn’t feel that way.
Most of our feelings are old because we never got to process them—to see, feel, and hear them—so they stay trapped inside of us. So maybe we feel some new anger about a situation, but it gets added to the decades-old pile of anger that we haven’t processed, and that’s why it feels so very big, so very significant. and so painful.
Emotions are yearning to integrate; they want to be released from our bodies, and so they look for things to bring them up, in the hope we will finally allow them to be here and fully allow them to be seen, felt, and heard.
4. My emotions are my emotions; your emotions are your emotions.
By taking responsibility for our feelings as our own, we can move through them much more quickly than trying to work through them together. We get to get out the other side. And if we want to have discussions with our partners—say about cleaning and cooking and kids and arrangements—it’s on the other side of our feelings that we want to do it.
When the anger has released, when the lens has been wiped clean. When we are through that feeling. Then we can have empathy, understanding, and a much more expanded vision of our lives and relationships.
Once I worked through my piles of historical anger, rage, and sadness that had accumulated over the decades of my life, and the pains of disappointment I had felt but tried to run away from, I automatically started to see the relationship I had totally differently.
I was then able to communicate with my husband how I saw experiences and situations in our relationship from a place of calm. When I wasn’t throwing resentment and anger at him, and not having conversations when he was emotional as well, our communication totally changed its texture. We started to negotiate our needs and find the space to support each other from a place of empathy.
5. What do emotions need? To be seen, felt, and heard.
Emotions are looking for these three simple things. The first is to be seen, to be acknowledged—not blamed or judged (or blaming other people for having emotions). A simple step is to just see them:
Oh, I see some anger has activated here!
I am feeling some fear.
What am I feeling? Gosh, I think it’s some disappointment, and some sadness.
And what emotions want so very much is to be met with empathy, understanding, and compassion:
I am feeling so much anger right now; gosh, this is a lot! It’s uncomfortable and hard to stay with this feeling, but I understand why anger is here. This has always been a hard emotion for me.
Fear is a lot! But I am going to offer some compassion as I hold this fear, to sit with myself in it, and give myself a lot of empathy.
Disappointment is a tricky emotion for me! Can I offer myself some understanding here? To acknowledge it’s not easy for me as I learn how to be with this emotion with more kindness and gentleness?
We need to step away from our thoughts in this process, to see that the emotions we experience are actually held in our body, and it’s in our body that we get to fully feel them.
It’s by fully feeling our feelings, rather than getting lost in our thoughts, that we get the chance to release the intensity of our feelings.
Not by following along with the blaming and judging ourselves or others.
The last part is to hear them. Emotions are incredible guides for us when we learn how to feel and release them. They always come with guidance around our unmet needs. They aren’t here to punish us, but instead show us where we can become more authentic, more in line with our values, and stronger in our boundaries.
When we decide to give ourselves space and support through our emotional reactions, this is what changes the texture of our relationships.
What could your relationship be like if you were able to move through those big, sticky feelings that arise, that may cause conflicts or make you react differently to how you want to react?
It’s not just the case of intimate relationships with our partners, but also true of our relationships with anyone we love. When we speak to our parents or siblings, our extended family, or friends, and we have big difficult feelings about them, if we can work through those feelings our relationships will automatically change.
When we can unblock our relationships from big piles of shame, fear, anger, or loneliness, we can move into spaces where much deeper intimacy, mutual empathy, and support live.
It’s a wildly beautiful place to live, in trust and connection, knowing that we can still have feelings, we can still have conflict—but when we can work with our emotions, we don’t stay stuck in a place of raw, untended pain that arises and derails our lives and our relationships.
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About Diana Bird
Diana Bird is a neuro emotional coach and writer, helping people release unhealthy emotional patterns and deep overwhelm. To receive her free workshop on building emotional resilience, sign up for her newsletter here. You’ll also receive invites to her free webinars on subjects like releasing shame and soothing overwhelm. Diana works with clients in her coaching practice and in online workshops and lives on the beach in southern Spain, with her children and photographer husband.